Just days before the 2012 NFL draft, Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery divulged the club was "working on a core of about seven players" as potential first-round targets.
While it's unclear what that number is for 2013, NFL sources count former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz among the group of players the Bears are focusing on, with one source saying he's "very much in play" to be the club's choice.
Considering the recent investment in veteran free agent Martellus Bennett (four years, $9.215 million guaranteed), and perceived needs in other areas, the interest in Ertz would seem somewhat peculiar. Still, a source said the Bears have "genuine interest (in Ertz) as a second tight end."
Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert is widely considered the top tight end in this year's draft class, but some scouts actually prefer Ertz, who in many mock drafts is projected to go late in the first round or early in the second. San Diego State's Gavin Escobar is another tight end projected as a top-25 pick.
Set to draft 20th overall, the Bears sit in an interesting position in the order. If they're inclined move back to the bottom of the first round or the top of the second, the Bears might be able to do so and still land Ertz. Such a move could also turn out to be a gamble.
While several mock drafts project Eifert to go higher than Ertz, there's no guarantee that happens because some personnel evaluators prefer the latter over the former. In many ways, it makes sense.
Ertz played in a pro-style system at Stanford, broke the school's all-time tight end record for catches and yards and led the nation last season in catches (69) and yards (898) for a tight end. Ertz finished the 2012 season with more touchdown receptions (6) than Eifert (4), more 100-yard receiving games (three, while Eifert had none), more catches of 20-plus yards (13 to Eifert's 12), and more catches of 40-plus yards (three, while Eifert had none).
Statistically, Ertz's best season (2012) in college was better than Eifert's best statistical year (2011). According to ESPN Stats and Information, since the start of the 2011 season, Ertz caught 24 passes on throws traveling more than 15 yards down the field, while Eifert hauled in 21. Ertz averaged 26.1 yards per catch on those passes, while Eifert's receptions on those throws averaged 27.2 yards.
As blockers, both are considered works in progress.
"I think there are a lot of good players in the group," Ertz said at the NFL combine. "Like I mentioned, Tyler, Gavin, some of those other guys; but I do mention myself in that same breath."
Interestingly, Ertz's finished the 2012 season with more receiving yardage than three of the receivers (California's Keenan Allen, Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, and Southern California's Robert Woods) considered among the top 10 at their position in this year's draft class.
Emery and the coaching staff have continuously articulated the need to become more dynamic at the tight end position.
"We need a tight end that can threaten the defense. We need a tight end that can create stress in the middle of the field or wherever we place him because we're going to line him up next to the tackle," Bears tight ends coach Andy Bischoff said prior to combine. "We're going to line him up outside the numbers. We're going to line up in the backfield, and we're going to expect the defense to figure it out.
"So we need a receiver who can catch the ball, and we need a receiver who can block enough to be lined up in the backfield if we put him there. The days of the tight end that blocked and ran flat routes in this league are coming to an end. The guys that just run 3-yard flat routes, that's not going to do anything for you."
Stanford lined up Ertz in-line and split him last season, in which he often drew extra coverage as the team's leading receiver. Ertz also compares favorably to former Stanford tight end and Joliet Catholic Academy star Coby Fleener, who in 2012 was drafted 34th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Ertz finished his final season with 35 more receptions than Fleener posted in his last year, 231 more yards, and two more 100-yard outings.
So it wouldn't be a surprise to see Ertz drafted higher than Fleener.
"Seeing some of the success that some of the Stanford tight ends had in the NFL kind of helps me being an optimist in that sense," Ertz said. "I was used all over the field at Stanford, in-line, and in the slot and out wide. That versatility is going to help me at the next level."
It's believed that Ertz could be in play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who sit three slots higher on the board than the Bears at 17. While not as likely, because they recently signed Brandon Myers as the replacement for Bennett, the New York Giants could be contenders for Ertz, too. Mel Kiper's latest mock draft predicts the Steelers will take Eifert at 17, which would mean Ertz could still be available at 20 if the Giants don't pounce. Todd McShay's mock draft, however, predicts Eifert will fall to the Bears at 20.
The Bears held a formal interview with Ertz at the combine, and according to sources, the club's interest hasn't waned, although it's unknown whether he has come to Halas Hall for a pre-draft visit, or if he's even scheduled for one. The Bears also held a private workout with Louisiana-Monroe tight end Keavon Milton, who is more of a blocker than receiver, and projected as a late-round pick or undrafted free agent.